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Inherent Vice : A Review?

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THERE ARE NO SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW!!!

Inherent Vice, directed  and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, is an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix and boasts supporting performances from Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon among many others.

At this point in writing a review I will usually give a brief synopsis of the film's story. As I hopelessly stare at this ever ravenous and judgmental computer screen, with it's incessant hunger for words, wisdom and insight, I realize I am intellectually barren on this topic, hollow at my core, devoid of even the most primitive capacity to explain the labyrinthine plot of Inherent Vice. I have scoured my brain, even put on the complete Pink Floyd collection in search of inspiration, but to no avail. To paraphrase Ned Flander's beatnik parents on The Simpsons, who didn't know how to discipline young Ned, "I've tried nothing and I'm all out of ideas!"

The revelation that has dawned on me is that this is not really a 'review', but would more accurately be described as a 'viewers guide'.  Inherent Vice is a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, surrounded by rolling papers. I have seen it twice already and it wasn't until well after the second viewing did things start to take shape for me in regards to figuring this film out. What I hope to do in writing this 'guide' is not explain the film to you, I think that is an impossibility, since my experience of the film will most assuredly be different from yours, but instead of explaining, I hope to help prepare you for your experience of the film. 

Inherent Vice is a film that is like a delicious Duncan Hines yellow cake with chocolate frosting, so dense and layered that it can be exquisitely delectable but at the same time down right overwhelming. The film is really three layers/films in one, if not many more. The key to watching Inherent Vice is to choose which version, or level, of the film you think you will most enjoy and gorge on it from there.  Here are the three scrumptious layers that are most apparent to me. Mmmmmmmm, yummy layers.

1. The Surface Level. On the surface level, Inherent Vice is a stoner mystery comedy. Think Cheech and Chong meet Chinatown. Personally, I don't get into stoner films, they just aren't my cup of tea, or drug of choice, or whatever metaphor you'd be more comfortable with. So I didn't appreciate the film on this level a great deal, although I admit it is pretty fun trying to figure out what is actually real and what is a just a hallucination in the mind of Joaquin Phoenix' character "Doc". A lot of people do dig stoner comedies though, and if you do, you may very well really like Inherent Vice just as an entertaining, fun movie and nothing more. If that is the case with you, then dive right in and enjoy. If not, then head to level two.

2. A Political/Social Commentary. Dig a little deeper with Inherent Vice and you will find a meditation on American corruption, fascism, and the exploitation of the individual and collective psyche by government and corporate interests through marketing and manipulation. On this level, it is all about the co-opting of the sixties liberation and freedom movements, both personal and political, by the establishment. As you watch, take note of how nothing is ever what it seems on the surface, like the dental conglomerate that is really an Asian drug cartel, or the drug-addled-hippie-musician who is really a spy for Nixon. Everything is something other than what it appears, every person and every group has a hidden nefarious motive at the core of their actions. So, don't have a freak out man!! Remember...paranoia is just a heightened sense of awareness!!

Level two is also riddled with political and social symbolism. As a prime example of level two symbolism, take note of one scene as an example,  in which Josh Brolin's "Bigfoot" character, the symbol of the establishment, kicks in Doc's door and then gobbles down marijuana by the handful as an intimidating show of power, which is really an allegory for the usurping of marijuana culture by the establishment in the form of legalization. Weed is now 'officially' integrated, and by being so legitimized, it loses it's mysterious power. Weed has now been neutered as a political statement and muted as a sacrament for the counter-culture and a symbol of their anti-authoritarianism and rebelliousness.

If you have four hours to kill (in one hour increments)… a really great primer on the exploitation of the individual and collective psyche by those in power, and how they manipulate through marketing, is a series of documentaries from the BBC titled, The Century of the Self. It is about Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays and his creation of of the public relations industry. It is long, but it is a truly great documentary, and it really lays the groundwork for understanding the massive manipulation that unfolds on level two of Inherent Vice, and in our actual lives to this day.  Here is a link…Century of the Self. 

3. A Jungian Psychological Exploration. On level three the story of Inherent Vice is really the tale of the spiritual/psychological quest for wholeness and reunification with the Self by the bringing together of the opposites. Ok, this might be the least apparent and most inaccessible level of the three described, but I found it the most interesting. The way to understand this is to see all of the characters in the story as parts of Doc's psyche. Doc, the long haired, counter-culture hippie, and Josh Brolin's "Bigfoot", the flat-topped-square-establishmentarian, are symbolic opposites of the same coin, Doc's psyche. Shasta, Doc's ex-girlfriend, represents the Anima (feminine power) and Doc the Animus (male), with Doc trying to re-connect with the anima in order to be complete and whole. Also notice the other opposites that come together, Nazis and Jews, the Black Guerrilla Family and the Aryan Brotherhood, Nixonites and hippies, etc. Another thing to keep an eye out for are the religious/spiritual symbolism, including the Christs with Uzis (no, that is not a misprint), and the Buddhas, both gatekeepers and guardians that keep Owen Wilson's character, and Mickey "Wolfmann" mentally, emotionally and psychologically hostage.

The great symbol of wholeness in the film is hiding in plain sight. It is...of all things…pizza!! Trust me, when you see pizza or hear the word pizza, pay attention. Pizza is round and is the symbol of wholeness, so when Doc, or the other characters whom are symbolic parts of his psyche, are looking for, ordering, or eating pizza, they are really searching for wholeness and reunification with the Self. Thus the eating of pizza represents the integrating of wholeness and through this synthesis with wholeness, they, and the part of Doc's psyche they personify, are healed. This is the story of level three, Doc's quest for re-connection with Self and wholeness. 

Thus ends the 'viewers guide'. Those are just some of the ways you can choose to look at the film. You will probably find much more, as the film speaks to people in the language that they can hear. I never read the Thomas Pynchon book the film is based on, so readers of that book might have a greater understanding and appreciation for the film on every level. 

Just a few quick final notes on some of the specifics of the film. First the acting. Joaquin Phoenix plays the lead role of Doc, and he is his usual stellar self. Phoenix' work in the last few years, especially his previous work with P.T. Anderson in The Master, has been so ingeniously brilliant it is beyond description as merely the craft of 'acting'. Phoenix' artistry is so rare and original that I cannot compare him to any other actor we've ever seen, but rather to another revolutionary artist from another form, Pablo Picasso.  Phoenix is so far out there in terms of what he brings to a role, his authenticity, originality and inventiveness that he can only be described as some sort of Picasso-esque mad genius. But beyond his obvious transcendent talent, he also brings an immense understanding and mastery of his craft and a painstakingly meticulous specificity to the details of his work. Joaquin Phoenix is as unique a talent as we have in the acting world, and he is at the height of his powers. We should all consider ourselves blessed to get to watch his work.

Josh Brolin has a supporting role and is as good as he's ever been. Brolin devours the role of "Bigfoot" like his character "Bigfoot" devours that platter of weed, or his Japanese pancakes ("MOTO PANACAKU!!"...Oh wow man, I just realized, just now, that a pancake is another round food symbol of wholeness!! Bigfoot is demanding, in the language of the east, more servings of wholeness to integrate!! Wholeness prepared and delivered by a man of the East!! Whoa….). Brolin brings an unwavering focus and intensity to "Bigfoot", which plays as both frightening and funny. Brolin can be an underrated actor, but here he shows he is the real deal when in the right role, and his performance is a key part in making Inherent Vice work.

Robert Elswit is the cinematographer on Inherent Vice, and his work is dazzling. Elswit has worked on many of P.T. Anderson's films, and his work is always exquisite, and Inherent Vice is no exception. This is the second film of note for Elswit this year, his cinematography on Nightstalker is stunning as well. It is without question that Elswit deserves not only an Oscar nomination but an Oscar win for his work in either Nightstalker or Inherent Vice. Elswit, like Phoenix, is another artist at the top of his game.

And there you have some random, scattered thoughts on the enigmatic Inherent Vice.  I can honestly tell you that I am not sure which parts of this 'review/guide' were real, and which were simply entertaining hallucinations, but I guess you'll figure that all out when you see the movie for yourself. 

I do hope you find the viewer's guide useful, but remember, those are just some of the ways to watch the film. You will probably find much more, as the film speaks to people in the language with which they can hear it, and that is it's greatest strength and a tribute to the mastery of director Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson is the great filmmaker of our time, and Inherent Vice is a tribute to his complexity and the intricacy of his work. I found the film to be fascinating, I think you may too.

© 2015

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , FOXCATCHER , WILD , AMERICAN SNIPER , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , THE IMITATION GAME , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .